Katharine DuPre Lumpkin and Dorothy Wolff Douglas

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Katharine DuPre Lumpkin and Dorothy Wolff Douglas

Excerpt from Child Workers in America
published in 1937

"Tom gets up, or is pulled out of bed, at 4 o'clock in summer, by his older brother, who is quicker than he to hear the landlord's bell."

from child workers in america

Before the American Civil War (1861–65), most black Americans worked and lived as slaves on plantations and farms in the Southern states. At the conclusion of the war, black Americans were freed from slavery but had no money to purchase their own farmland. White landowners still needed stable, low-cost laborers to work the land, so they devised a new farming system in which they divided their land into sections and assigned a family to work each section. These families were called sharecroppers because at harvest they had to share part of their crop, generally half, with the landowner. The shared crop was repayment for the use of the land and tools and for the cash advances that the landowner had given to the sharecropper for shelter, fuel, feed for livestock, seed, and fertilizer. Poor black Americans and poor white Americans worked as sharecroppers. Tenant farmers worked under the same arrangement as sharecroppers, but they usually owned their own tools.

Most sharecroppers and tenant farmers had, at best, minimal reading and math skills. This left them dependent on the honesty of the local store owner and landowner. They had to buy their food, clothing, and other necessities from the store on credit because they had no money until their crop was harvested. Frequently the owner of the store would overcharge on goods and charge excessive rates of interest on the extended credit. Landowners might deliberately underestimate the value of the farmer's harvest and then demand a larger share of the crop, leaving the farmer with little crop to sell to pay back the store owner. This system kept the sharecropper and tenant families in constant debt. Sharecroppers and tenant farmers were legally bound to work for the landowners as long as their debt persisted.

Katharine DuPre Lumpkin and Dorothy Wolff Douglas's 1937 book, Child Workers in America, looks at the place of child labor in the nation's economic life. Arguments raged in the 1930s over the need for child labor regulation. In their first chapter Lumpkin and Douglas focus on children working in agriculture. They concentrate predominantly on the children of sharecroppers and tenant farmers working in the cotton fields of Southern states. The excerpt illustrates the poverty and hopelessness of a sharecropper family.

Things to remember while reading the excerpt from Child Workers in America:

  • Sharecroppers and tenant farmers typically lived in crowded shacks, structures that failed to protect the inhabitants from rain and cold.
  • Sharecroppers and tenant farmers ate poor diets of fat-back (meat from the back of a hog carcass), corn bread, molasses, and potatoes.
  • Black sharecroppers and tenant farmers suffered from racial discrimination and violence at the hands of the dominant white society.
  • Children as young as six years old were expected to work in the fields.

Excerpt from Child Workers in America

Tom is a sharecropper's child, black, in Alabama. His family (father, mother, and four children old enough to make "hands") all work for the landowner, are all collectively continually in debt to him (they get $75 worth of supplies for the growing season and he keeps the books), and all live in a two-room cabin furnished by the landowner.

The cabin sits close to the ground, with a single layer of boards for a floor; one window, or rather window hole, in each room (no glass, a wooden shutter instead); a roof that leaks so badly that when the last baby was born, the mother said, her bed had to be moved three times; walls without paper or plaster, of course—indeed you can see daylight through their cracks; no stove, only an open fireplace; no fence or garden outside (the landlord decrees that the cotton must be grown "up to the doorstep"); no well, because "the creek is so near"; and for outhouse a hole in the ground with sacking on poles rigged up by the family themselves.

Here Tom lives and labors. He is now 12.…

Tom gets up, or is pulled out of bed, at 4 o'clock in summer, by his older brother, who is quicker than he to hear the landlord's bell. Work for the entire plantation force is "from can see to can't see" (i.e., from daylight to dark), and the bell is their commanding time-piece.…


Collectively: as a group.


Sacking: empty flour or potato sacks, hung up like curtains around the outhouse.


Pallet: a straw-filled mattress.

Little Jenny, aged 5, is being left at home today to care for the baby, because it is so hot; on cooler days the baby is carried along to the field and laid on a pallet under the tree, and Jenny can play among the cotton rows with the other children who are too young to work. (There are plantations where mothers of young infants are given fifteen minutes nursing time, no more, morning and afternoon.
Then they must take the baby along: there is not enough time to go home.)

Tom is a good, steady chopper and can do over half a man's work. At picking he can do two-thirds. Peter, aged 9, does considerably less than that. In fact when his father asked to stay on at the beginning of the growing season, the landlord told him he didn't see how he could keep him on another year raising a crop on so many acres and living in such a good house, with his family so "no-account."

Tom has been to school part of three grades. The Negro school in his district runs four months "normally" (the white school runs six); but in the year 1932–33 it closed altogether, and since then it has been averaging less than three months. Besides, cotton-picking season in Alabama runs well into November, and after that it is often too cold to go to school without shoes. So from January on Tom and Peter have been taking turns in one pair.


"No-account": in debt.

He was a "prosperity" child

He was a "prosperity" child: his schooling took place during the 1920s in better economic times.

The older brother did a little better. He was a "prosperity" child , and during several of the 1925–29 seasons he got the fullfour-months school term. By the time he was 13, however, he had stopped going altogether, having finished the fifth grade (twenty months of education for a lifetime of work) and being, in the view of the riding boss , "plenty big for a man's work and likely to get uppity soon if he don't quit school."

In picking cotton Tom is not so much "smarter" than some of the younger children. At age 12 he can keep going longer, of course, at the end of a twelve-hour day with the thermometer still close to 100°, than he could when he was 7, but he can hardly pick faster. All the children pick with both hands, and by the end of the first season the lifetime rhythm of pluck, pluck, drop-in-the-bag is long since established. But now that Tom is taller he has to stoop so much, or move along on his knees, while the littlest fellows scramble by with "hardly a bend to them." The cotton plants often grow shoulder-high, to be sure, but the cotton bolls on them grow nearly all the way to the ground; so, for all but a tiny child, this means "stooping, stooping all day." But Tom can manage the big sack that he drags after him by a shoulder strap better now than when he was a little fellow. It grows so heavy dragging along after the smallest pickers all day that it nearly makes up for the "bends" of the older ones.…

Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941)

In the summer of 1936 James Agee (1909–1955), a writer for Fortune magazine, was assigned to write a story about an Alabama sharecropper and his family. He was to provide a portrait of poverty in the rural South. Agee hired Walker Evans (1903–1975), a photographer with the Farm Security Administration, to travel with him and take documentary photographs for the article. Although Fortune ended up not publishing the article, Agee and Evans continued their work together. In 1941 Houghton Mifflin published their five-hundred-page book Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. The book followed the lives of three rural families. Thirty-one striking photographs were included in the original edition, and another thirty-one were added in a 1960 edition. Close-up photos captured the desperation of rural America during the Depression. Although not a big seller when originally published, the book has become recognized as an American classic, providing one of the most famous visual and documentary accounts of the Great Depression.

Riding boss

Riding boss: person who oversees the sharecroppers' work.

Wretched and stultifying

Wretched and stultifying: miserable and dulling.

What is Tom—and what are all the hundreds of thousands of his fellows in the cotton belt of the South—getting for this investment of his childhood? An outlook for the future, a foundation for something better for him later on, an immediate financial return even in his own pocket, for his present wretched and stultifying toil? On the contrary, Tom is not only burying his own childhood in this cotton patch, he is drawing in return not a dollar of pay, from year's end to year's end. The landlord's account simply chalks up so many acres cultivated against thefamily's debts for the coming year, and if Tom or his brothers did not work, their father would not get his farm for the next season. Tom's and his family's reward is that he continue shoeless and abominably fed, oppressed and half-illiterate from those first months in the fields when he was 6 until he shall be an old man. [Lumpkin and Douglas, pp. 4–6]

What happened next…

The early New Deal agricultural policies such as those of the Agricultural Adjustment Administration (AAA) favored large landowners; small farmers like sharecroppers and tenant farmers had to fend for themselves. When the AAA paid large landowners to refrain from planting some crops and fields, the landowners no longer needed as many sharecroppers or tenant farmers. As a result, tens of thousands of sharecroppers and tenant farmers were forced off the land, and their families were suddenly homeless. In 1934 black and white sharecroppers in Arkansas, Oklahoma, Texas, and Mississippi joined together to try to put a stop to this trend. Calling themselves the Southern Tenant Farmers' Union, they gained twenty-five thousand members, but after the group achieved only limited success, membership declined by 1937.


Abominably: poorly.


Half-illiterate: barely able to read and write.

A New Deal agency called the Resettlement Administration (RA) attempted to resettle sharecroppers and tenant farmers on good land and give them opportunities to buy the land. In reality, very few families were ever resettled. Instead, by 1937 the RA evolved into the Farm Security Administration (FSA), which concentrated on loaning money to the families (to buy food, clothing, feed, seed, and fertilizer) rather than trying to resettle them. Slowly many of the younger sharecroppers and tenant farmers managed to leave the farms and find jobs for wages in the industrialized Northern cities. This movement to industrial jobs accelerated with the start of World War II (1939–45), when U.S. factories needed to quickly manufacture war supplies, including bullets, tanks, and airplanes.

Sharecroppers and tenant farmers who could not leave because they had nowhere else to go continued to live in poverty. For many the situation worsened, for two reasons: Increased mechanization (use of machinery) resulted in fewer people being needed to work the land. Secondly, in many small areas the land became so eroded—from continuous re-planting without replacing nutrients, and poor plowing practices—that the property was rendered useless for crop production. In both situations families were pushed off the land and had nowhere to resettle.

Did you know…

  • In 1930 approximately 581,000 whites and 486,000 blacks were sharecroppers and tenant farmers.
  • In the 1930s sharecroppers earned an average of $312 per year, and tenant farmers averaged $417 annually. The yearly median family income nationwide was $1,160 in 1935. The U.S. government estimated that a family of four needed at least $800 per year to survive in the mid-1930s.

Consider the following…

  • How could the landowners routinely cheat sharecroppers and tenant farmers out of income? Consider the educational opportunities available to the children.
  • The authors of the excerpt describe Tom's life and his family's situation in some detail. Judging from this description, what do you think their position is on unprotected child labor?
  • Considering what you know about Tom's early life, do you think he was able to escape poverty and build a better life?

For More Information

agee, james, and walker evans. let us now praise famous men: three tenant families. boston, ma: houghton mifflin, 2000. reprint.

conrad, david e. the forgotten farmers: the story of sharecroppers in the new deal. westport, ct: greenwood press, 1982.

dregni, michael, ed. this old farm: a treasury of family farm memories. stillwater, mn: voyageur press, 1999.

lumpkin, katharine dupre, and dorothy wolff douglas. child workers in america. new york, ny: robert m. mcbride & company, 1937.